Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited the need to complete the formation of new cabinet ministers to excuse himself from attending the G-8 summit at Camp David. In an apparent retaliation, the White House announced that President Obama will not participate in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, scheduled to be hosted by Putin in Vladivostok in September.
Putin’s refusal to participate in the world’s most prestigious meeting can be seen as a rolling back of the “reset.” Putin’s gesture exposes not only his deep dislike of America and of fancy conferences lacking substance but also his low opinion of the current U.S. leadership. The Russian president seeking concessions from Obama on the ballistic missile defense issue is not what the Obama re-election campaign wants to hear.
Putin made no attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with U.S.–Russian relations when U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was in Moscow, bringing with him Obama’s multi-page memo to Putin about deepening U.S.–Russian ties. After the meeting, Putin said that Russia would consider this path only if the U.S. views Russia as an equal partner. First, Putin said, the U.S. should provide written guarantees that U.S. missile defense installations in Eastern Europe are not aimed at Russia. Since few expect the U.S. to give Russia satisfaction on this, Putin’s absence from the summit is hardly surprising.
The White House repeatedly invited Putin for a visit during his prime ministership. Last summer a high-ranking official told me that after invitations by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, the Obama Administration was working out the details of Putin’s visit to America. But Putin did not come. President Obama even moved the location of the G-8 summit to Camp David (from Chicago, where it had been planned to proceed alongside the NATO summit) to avoid putting the Russian president in an awkward situation. But Putin is still not coming.
Now it turns out that the Russian president’s first state visit will be to China. My guess is that Putin wants to emphasize relations with Beijing and does not want to waste time on pomp and ceremony. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev can easily substitute for him at the ceremonial affairs, but when it comes to serious business, such as huge oil and gas deals, Putin’s presence is essential.
The Duma December 2011 election’s unflattering assessment by international and domestic monitors, criticism of the fairness of the March 2012 elections, detention and sentencing of opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny and Sergey Udaltsov, and over 400 demonstrations could also result in unpleasant questions at the summit by Western media as well as attending world leaders.
The main reason for the Russian president “disrespect” of Obama is this: Putin’s low opinion of Obama is the worst-kept secret in Moscow, despite the fact that the Kremlin would love to see him re-elected. Obama’s inability to make foreign policy commitments during the election period might have further eroded the rationale for Putin to hobnob with his American colleague. Obama himself was caught explaining his current inflexibility to then-President Medvedev in the open microphone incident at the recent Seoul nuclear summit.
While there are many issues that require cooperation between Washington and Moscow—including nonproliferation, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Russia’s World Trade Organization entrance and investments—boycotting the summit is clearly a sign of “reset” failure and worse things to come if Obama is re-elected.